April’s meteor showers may turn out the indoor wallflowers. The Lyrids peak this weekend, featuring an estimated 20 each hour, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the International Meteor Organization.
In a prediction for the International Meteor Organization, astronomer Robert Lunsford says the peak will be Saturday around noon on the East Coast. Since most shooting stars are difficult to see in the middle of daylight, Lunsford suggests going outside in the dark hours before sunrise on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The astronomical method for measuring meteors is the zenithal hourly rate, or ZHR. Even if you’re under a clear dark sky in perfect conditions, no one will ever see 20 meteors each hour at peak. The reality is that you’ll catch — if you’re lucky — only a handful.
How do you find shooting stars? Go outside, get away from light (like streetlights or porch lights), find a dark sky and then look up. The mornings will be chilly this weekend in the Mid-Atlantic, so take some coffee with you and wear a warm coat. Your eyes will need to adjust to the dark heavens, but persevere.
Shooting stars, generally speaking, are leftover dust from comets gone by. As comets orbit through our solar system, these dirty snowballs leave a trail of debris near the warming sun. Earth runs through these paths, and the little cometary dirt specks strike our atmosphere — zip! — and light up for a nighttime show.
In this case of the Lyrid meteors, the parental body is Comet Thatcher, C/1861 G1, discovered literally on the eve of the Civil War, April 5, 1861, by astronomer A.E. Thatcher, according to NASA. The Confederate army opened the war by firing upon Fort Sumter on April 12.
Comet Thatcher dashes by Earth every 415 years and it should swing by our blue planet again sometime around 2276. But in May 1861, it was bright enough to see, according to the late Patrick Moore’s book, “The Wandering Astronomer.” The comet should be at its farthest distance from the sun and Earth in the year 2068, when it rounds a cosmic corner and heads back to our cosmic neighborhood.
If you scout for shooting stars on Saturday or Sunday morning, note the effervescent, brilliant planet Venus rising in the eastern heavens at about 4:45 a.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. On Sunday and Monday mornings before sunrise, find Venus near the waning, last quarter crescent moon — it’s quite a bright sight at -4.6 or -4.7 magnitude.
The astronomical webcaster Slooh.com will present a special show on the Lyrid meteors at 4 p.m. Saturday — very close to the peak of the shower. Incidentally, Slooh will also celebrate Earth Day earlier Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m. The webcaster will interview astronauts and carry you to various world points.